There are often times in planning our gardens that we need plants that are tall, but narrow. With evergreens, we can do this by trimming regularly, but that can become a big job on tall trees, so it makes a lot of sense to plant instead something that is naturally tall and narrow. That way we can leave the trimmers in the garage and simply enjoy our gardens. This can also be a real issue when we need a tall screen, but only have a narrow space available to plant it.
If this sounds like your situation, the Italian Cypress sounds like the plant you need. This beautiful but tough plant will stay as a narrow column, no wider than a tenth of its height, with no trimming from you. If you have traveled to, or seen images of Italy, then you have seen these trees, like dark fingers on the hillsides, pointing up into the clear blue sky.
As long as you live in zone 7 or warmer, you can enjoy these wonderful trees in your own garden too. They make a great narrow screen or hedge – you can trim them for an even tighter and more formal look – or a wonderful accent plant among your other plants, or on either side of an entrance. They make great plants for large pots too, giving a classic look to any space.
About the Italian Cypress
The Italian Cypress is a tall, narrow evergreen tree that grows wild across the Mediterranean region, originally in the east, in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Greece. However, for centuries it has been cultivated further west, especially in Italy, where it has reached iconic status in the landscape. It also grows in gardens and in the wild in France and Spain, as well as around the world wherever the climate is suitable.
The narrow upright ‘dark finger’ is a prominent feature in the landscape wherever it grows. Other names for this tree are the Mediterranean Cypress, Tuscan Cypress or Pencil Pine. It is closely related to the Monterey cypress, (Cupressus macrocarpa), which grows wild in the southwestern states of America.
The wild trees vary in width and some can be broad, but selection over the centuries has developed the very narrow, pencil-like form grown today in gardens. The tree has a strong central trunk, with branches almost to the ground. The foliage and branches stay on the lowest parts of the tree for many years, but eventually a thick trunk with dark-brown, stringy bark will develop.
The foliage is a very dark, gray-green color and grows in dense, upright sprays. The tiny leaves cling tightly to the stems. Older trees produce round cones, one or two inches across, which eventually fall to the ground. Trees are typically about 40 feet tall, if left unclipped, although old trees can be 100 feet tall. It is always about a tenth of its height in width, so a 30 feet tree will only be about 3 feet wide.
The garden form of this tree – narrow, dense and upright – developed through many years of gardening. Trees grown from seed are variable, so instead our skilled growers select upright pieces from perfect plants and grow young plants from those stem pieces. This means that every plant is identical and gives you the perfect look you want. These perfect plants take longer to produce, so avoid cheaper seedling trees, which vary in width and density.
Italian Cypress Growth Rate
This cypress is a fast growing tree when young, adding as much as 3 feet to its height in a single year under ideal conditions, but it slows as it reaches maturity. For maximum growth during the development stages of your plants, fertilize regularly and water well during dry spells. So when you first plant a hedge or barrier with this tree, it will quickly develop and fill in to give you the barrier you need as soon as possible.
Once established, the trees will naturally slow in growth, so your barrier or hedge will not need constant clipping to keep it under control. This is an ideal situation and helps keep your garden attractive but low maintenance.
Hardiness of the Italian Cypress
The Italian Cypress grows from zone 7, with average winter low temperatures of 0°F, all the way to zone 11, where it never freezes at all in winter. This makes it a great choice for your garden if you live in any of the warmer to hot areas of the country. Combined with its drought-resistance, this is a fantastic tree for xeric or low-water plantings, which are becoming more common, and even required, in some states, such as California.
Even if you live in a cooler area, you can grow this tree in a pot as a lovely specimen for your terrace, where it brings a touch of European charm. For the winter you can store the plants in a cold building during the coldest months. It would be best if there was some light, but if the soil in the pots is dry and the temperatures are cold, ideally below freezing, it will be happy for a couple of months in the dark.
Another feature of the Italian Cypress is how drought resistant it is. Of course, when young and recently planted, you should water your new trees regularly, once or twice a week if the weather is hot. For the first few years, it is best to also water them during long dry periods, both in summer and during winter. In milder areas, plants continue to grow in winter, so if the weather is warm and dry some watering will help your plants.
Once established, this is a truly drought tolerant tree, that will go for long periods without any water at all. This makes it ideally suited for hot, dry areas, like California, New Mexico and southern Texas. There it will grow through long droughts with little or no watering needed at all. This does not mean these are the only places it will grow – not at all. It also grows well in Florida and the Deep South.
Best Soil Type for the Italian Cypress
This tough tree will grow in all types of soil. It will thrive in sandy soils, but also in clay, and of course in every soil in between. The only conditions that are not suitable are poorly drained and wet soils. For those soils, if you are looking for a hedge or barrier, we recommend Thuja Green Giant, which is happy in wetter conditions.
Pests, Diseases and Deer
Serious pests or diseases do not attack Italian Cypress. Deer usually leave them alone, and this tree is even fire-resistant. There are some tips for keeping your trees healthy, especially if you live in areas that can be humid and wet. In those areas, it is best to plant your trees in well-drained soil, and perhaps build a low mound for planting, or a ridge for planting a hedge. This will keep the roots drier and healthy. In humid areas, to avoid disease, do not spray the foliage regularly and adjust your sprinkler system to avoid spraying the trees every time it runs.
Using Italian Cypress as a Hedge or Barrier
With its naturally narrow form, it is easy to make a barrier or hedge with Italian Cypress – a hedge that needs little or no trimming to look good and not become overgrown. This gives the plant a big advantage for low maintenance gardening, since many other fast growing trees need regular trimming. With its narrow profile it can even be used in an area with limited space, and still need little trimming. However, to create an impenetrable barrier with the densest growth, trimming once or twice a year is best.
Because of that narrow form, do not leave a lot of space between plants in a hedge or screen, since they will fill in sideways slowly. The upside to this is that you greatly reduce your overall maintenance when you choose this plant for a hedge. This also means that you can plant closer to walls and fences than with many other evergreens. So you can fit a hedge into a narrower space overall. This is a great benefit in smaller gardens or in urban settings where spaces tend to be reduced. Allow 12 to 18 inches as a minimum distance from a wall or fence or the back part of your plants will eventually lose their branches, making them look thinner and more open.
Using Italian Cypress as an Informal Barrier
For the perfect privacy screen or background, plant your trees between 3 and 5 feet apart. Do not exceed 5 feet or you will wait a long time for the spaces between the trees to fill in. A good way to get a denser screen quicker is to plant a double row. Space the rows 3 feet apart and put the plants 6 to 7 feet apart in the rows. Stagger the planting so that each plant is in the space between the plants in the other row – a zigzag arrangement.
With the Italian Cypress you have chosen, you will not need to trim the trees at all to see an informal but dense screen develop quickly over the course of a few years. It will always stay narrow for a restricted space, and always look graceful and elegant with no trimming needed.
If you want to develop a denser coverage quicker, trim twice a year for the first few years and then once a year after that. Always trim so that there is a slight inward flat slope to the face of the plants. This way light will reach the lower parts and keep them strong and healthy.
Using Italian Cypress as a Hedge
You can also create a wonderful formal hedge with this cypress tree. Plant your trees 2 to 3 feet apart in a single row, or 3 to 4 feet apart in a double row, with the rows 2 feet apart. These distances will give you the best results in the shortest time, as well as keep your hedge healthy for many years.
It can be tempting to push the plants as close together as possible, but this will never produce the dense, thick hedge you are looking for. If you do not want a very tall hedge – perhaps less than 6 feet tall, then planting at 2 feet apart will give good results. For anything taller than this, it is best to use the 3 feet spacing, or plant a double row.
How to Plant the Italian Cypress
You can plant your Italian Cypress trees at any time of year and as soon as you receive them, as long as the ground is not frozen hard. If you need to leave them in the pots for a while, that is OK too; just make sure you water them every few days.
Prepare the ground by digging or tilling an area 2 to 3 feet wide, and 8 to 12 inches deep, taking out weed roots as you go. Do not worry about any stones you see, unless they are bigger than your clenched fist – remove those. Smaller stones help with drainage, so leave them where they are. Add some organic material, such as garden compost, rotted manure, peat moss; or whatever kind of material is available to you locally. Add some starter fertilizer for evergreen trees while preparing the soil.
If you are planting specimen or accent trees, dig or till each spot in a circle 2 to 3 feet across and otherwise do the same things as for a hedge.
For planting a hedge, the best way is to dig out a trench in your prepared area, a little wider than the pots and the same depth as they are. Use a tight string to keep it straight, and measure out from a wall so that it is parallel. Now put the plants into the trench and adjust the spacing to keep them even. If you are using 3-foot spacing, place the first plant 18 inches from where you want the hedge to start. That first plant should always be at half the distance you are using between the plants.
Once you have all your plants spaced out evenly and standing upright, go along the trench and push back about two-thirds of the soil, firming it down around the roots as you go. Then flood the trench with water, filling it to the top. Once the water has drained away completely, put back the rest of the soil. You don’t need to water again unless the soil is very dry. Check that all your plants are standing upright and you are done.
Caring for Your Italian Cypress
Italian Cypress is a tough plant, so it does not take much care to keep them healthy. However paying attention to a few simple things will make the difference between good and fantastic.
In the first season after planting, you should water your trees well once a week. During very hot weather water twice a week. After that, as the trees develop, water as only needed during hot and dry periods. Even young trees are very drought hardy, but they will grow faster if you give them some water during dry weather. Once they are completely established, this is such a hardy tree that you probably will never need to even think about watering it – a great low maintenance plant.
During the first few years, to get the fastest and healthiest growth possible, use a fertilizer suitable for evergreen trees in early spring and again in late summer. These come as granules, slow-release granules or liquids. The slow-release forms are the easiest to use, but regular granular fertilizers work well too.
Liquid fertilizers will give you fast growth when plants are young, but they need to be used every few weeks, so when you plants are more established, switch to a granular form. Follow the recommendations given for the particular fertilizer you use, and do not use too much – more is not usually better when it comes to feeding your trees and shrubs.
Pruning and Trimming
Your Italian Cypress trees will grow perfectly into upright, dense columns without any trimming. The same is true for a privacy screen, but if you want to have the densest and neatest specimens, hedges or screens, some trimming is a good idea. With regular trimming, your plants will always look their perfect best, and grace your garden and home with elegance and style.
Trim your trees at any time of year except during mid-winter. If you do have regular periods below freezing in your area, then stop trimming about a month before the coldest weather usually arrives, and start again once the warmer weather returns. Otherwise, you can trim whenever you wish. Early spring and late summer are the best seasons, but if you need to trim outside those times, that is fine too.
Common Pruning and Trimming Mistakes
The most common mistake is to wait until the trees are the height you want before starting to trim. It is much better to start trimming right from the beginning. This will give you the best and densest hedge possible. Just remove one or two inches of growth, encouraging the shape you want. Trim from side to side, not just upwards, or you will create long upright shoots that can break.
Another good reason for starting early is that this tree will not re-sprout from wood that has no leaves on it. If you cut so hard that you have a woody stump, it will never re-grow leaves. So if you start trimming when plants are young, you will never have to face this problem.
Always trim so that the top of your plants is narrower than the bottom. This is easy to do with the Italian Cypress, as the tree naturally grows this way. Keep a flat front on your hedge that slopes inwards by a few degrees. The sun will be able to reach the lowest parts, and they will stay healthy and green, giving you a hedge that is dense and strong right to the ground.
Interesting Facts About the Italian Cypress
Wild trees of the Italian Cypress grow in Iran. They are widely grown in famous gardens there and the oldest tree is believed to be 4,000 years old. This tree has grown in gardens in Europe since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it is still a feature today, especially in Italian gardens.
The wood is strong and fragrant. Wine barrels were made of it, as well as doors and furniture. Spectacular doors made of this wood stood at St Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, in Rome, for over a thousand years. When replaced in the 19th century, they were still strong.
Buying Italian Cypress at The Tree Center
We sell only trees that are true to the original form and we have a wide range of sizes to give you the best plants, whatever your purpose. Our stock is constantly renewed so that our customers get fresh, healthy plants. This means that supplies of this tree may be limited. To avoid disappointment order now.